Beauty

Handpoked tattoos: What is the ancient skin inking method? Is it safe?

Posted by
Lucy Partington
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Tattoo artist Nara Ishikawa gives us on the low-down on the ancient machine-free method of inking skin.

The general consensus around tattoos has changed a lot in the last few years. These days, they’re more popular than ever and the designs are becoming seriously intricate and ridiculously impressive.

There are also a variety of different methods becoming increasingly more popular, and one of those is handpoked tattoos – also known as stick and poke, or stick’n’poke. 

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“Handpoke tattooing is where the artist pushes the ink into skin without the use of an electric tattoo machine, and it resembles ancient methods before electricity was invented,” says Nara Ishikawa, a tattoo artist who taught herself how to handpoke while doing an apprenticeship in a Cornwall studio.

We spoke to her to find out more about the technique and her work…

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Nara Ishikawa designing a tattoo

Where does the word tattoo come from?

It’s believed to have originated from the Polynesian word tatau. Traditional Polynesian tattoos used a comb called “au” which was tapped with a mallet “sausau” to push the ink into the skin.   

Where did the method of handpoked tattoos originate?

Pushing ink into the skin by hand is an ancient practice. Ötzi, a frozen body found in the Ötzal Alps dating back to 5200years and thought to have lived between 3400 and 3100 BCE has 61 soot tattoos. Cuts were made on the skin and soot then rubbed in. Nobody knows exactly whether these were to adorn the body or if they had a medical relevance, but some people say the positioning of the markings are some form of ancient acupuncture. 

Nara Ishikawa in the middle of a tattoo
Nara Ishikawa in the middle of a tattoo

What is handpoking?

The basic mark of handpoking is a dot. The dot is the foundation to a plethora of possibilities. One dot can become a line if they are placed close enough together, or they can function as shading depending on how densely packed they are, or a beautiful gradient from the most solid black to a very light grey can be achieved. A traditional tattoo machine will also create dots as it punctures the skin, but because it’s so much faster, it’s easy to forget they are produced in the same way.

Are all handpoke artists self-taught?

Generally, yes, especially because handpoke apprenticeships are unusual but because many handpokers are exclusively self-taught they won’t do an apprenticeship at all.

What’s the best thing about being a self-taught tattoo artist?

The positive side of being self-taught is that the freedom from method and lack of a single source of guidance may open a level of experimentation within the artist sooner than if they had had a conventional way of learning. Of course there are plenty of experimental artists who push boundaries and have done traditional apprenticeships! Pour all these artists in a crucible that is instagram and you have a modern source of inspiration, admiration, copying, drama, anxiety and in my opinion growth.

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Nara Ishikawa in the middle of doing a handpoked tattoo

Do handpoked tattoos always have to be small and delicate?

It all depends how patient a hand poker can be more delicate tattoos can take a long time to create as the needles used are smaller, which in turn make smaller dots and to build an image of very tiny building blocks is a slow process. I started off aiming to achieve delicate and small images and I experimented with the tiniest needles to find how small was too small and reached a limit! Once I found my limit I started exploring bigger needles too. I love to do pieces that mix bold blacks with soft shading and the contrast that creates.

How do handpoked tattoos compare to those done by a machine?

It is hard to compare because there is a lot of variables, but in a broad overview I’d say that in general hand poked tattoos take longer to make than machine tattoos. The hand poke process is less painful for the client, but the pain experience or being still in one position will last longer as the tattoo generally takes longer! Hand poked tattoos tend to heal faster because there is less trauma and damage to the skin.  

Do you think one method is better than the other?

For me personally, I don’t think so. Both are distinct and both have their unique qualities and limitations. I am currently learning how to use a machine as well. I don’t intend to ever stop handpoking but I hope the machine will just be another tool for my art, unlocking more possibilities and expanding my skillset. 

Handpoked tattoo inspiration

Image credits: Nara Ishikawa

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Lucy Partington

Lucy Partington is Stylist’s beauty editor. She’s obsessed with all things skincare, collecting eyeshadow palettes that she’ll probably never use, and is constantly on the hunt for the ultimate glowy foundation.

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